In Art, Digital Projection Mapping Finds Its Place

Last year, Italian fashion house Max Mara hosted a large-scale collaboration with a London-based digital artist, Yiyun Kang. It was a digital projection mapping installation — a branch of digital art that typically does not call to mind when someone utters, "Art". 

Years ago, Kang had art curators and naysayers brush her off, calling her work a mere "video". Yet, the 35-year-old begs to differ. "It is a new form of art."

"We live in somewhere between the real and the virtual. It is our medium. The medium is a language of a particular age. It's everywhere. Without it, we can't talk about issues in a proper way — politics, culture, whatever." 

Yiyun Kang
Yiyun Kang

Digital Projection Mapping: An Artisitc Medium

The medium — linen canvas, oil paint, acrylic paint, 35-millimetre film, video — are materials with which the artists work with. Mediums closely reflect the technological advances of a time, and inevitably form the messages that artists convey about the current societal climate. 

Over the centuries in art history, new mediums have surfaced, been contested, and stayed. This has been a natural trajectory for the art industry. 

Take, for instance, the oil paintings that came into popularity amongst Renaissance painters in the 1400s. The introduction of oil paint arguably began with a Flemish painter named Jan van Eyck. His use of oil paint made the three-dimensionality of two-dimensional paintings possible — making a painting look "real" and true to life. This came at a time when painters conventionally used tempera paint, or loosely translated to poster colour. It seems like a minor change. Yet, the move from tempera to oil paint cued at a cultural shift from medieval to Renaissance thoughts — from the spiritual to the physical world. A shift in artistic medium often cues at a wider socio-cultural change.

Later, various technological advancements would go on to shape the Avant-Garde, Cubist, Abstraction, and Futurist movements. All these led up to the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, which opened the floodgates of new media into the art industry. "If you go back to the '50s and '70s, there were a lot of artists who, at that time, used screen projectors. One artist mapped the entire building with screen projectors. He wanted to talk about the community's housing problems," Kang continues. Earlier forms of video art were found in this movement, and they eventually gave birth to the digital projection mapping installations of today. 

Digital Projection Mapping: Small Successes

Digital projection mapping happens when artists use a software to design a moving image, later projecting it on a surface (for instance, the dome of Seoul's Dongdaemun Design Plaza). The moving image distorts the actual surface, and tells a story that the artists wants to convey. 

It remains a relatively young genre. "Its history is less than 20-years-old." In the past couple of years, Kang wrote her PhD research thesis on the trajectory of digital mapping installations in the art industry — the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. That was, arguably, a small beginning and success for the art.

Even so, Kang admits that digital projection mapping artists are struggling to find a place in the wider art industry. "In the art world, people don't want to accept new media art in the first place. Their frame is really strong, they don't want to invite other elements into their world of fine art. There is a market, are auctions, curators — a whole institution out there. If they were to open their gates easily to new media art, people won't be so happy." 

The industry aside, artists themselves are averse to the digital medium. "The larger part of artists are still sticking to the old mediums."

A digital projection mapping by Yiyun Kang at the Victoria & Albert museum. Photograph by V&A Museum.
Yiyun Kang projected a moving image on the artefacts that were present at the Victoria & Albert Museum, bringing them to life. Photography by V&A Museum.

Yet, the digital medium is achingly crucial and relevant to our time. And in the past couple of years, Kang found a silver lining. 

For six months between 2015 and 2016, Kang was a resident digital artist at London's Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum. It eventually culminated in a large-scale digital projection mapping installation in the museum, sponsored by Samsung. "On the final day of my exhibition, the curator came up to me, "Yiyun, I want to buy your piece." "Really?," I was so excited and the discussion began." The purchase discussion spanned a year. Reason being, this was the first recorded digital projection mapping purchase, and no one knew how to purchase a piece of digital art on this scale.

"The curators were so excited about it. So, how are we going to do this? Is this a video, is this film, what is it?" It was essentially a moving image cast on the artefacts within the V&A museum. Curators wanted to buy the software file, yet they were afraid that the software might soon become obsolete in a couple of years' time. Afterall, the number of projection mapping softwares went from zero to 30 in under a decade. 

The purchase eventually went through. From Kang's knowledge, other museums across the globe joined in the conversation, and made this purchase a case study for future digital art purchases.

 "For me, that was a mega moment. They purchased the entire installation. It seems that it is worth it to keep it. It is a new form of art and they bought it to conserve it for the next generation. In the larger context, media art is no longer a separate technology. There are a lot of issues and discussions about media art as a mere technique." 

In fact, beyond Kang, there are a dozen other digital projection mapping artists who are making a mark. They include Pablo Valbuena, a Spanish artist whose notable 2007 work, titled "Augmented Sculpture" has toured numerous cities and museums. 

Valbuena aside, there is the French visual artist Joanie Lemercier, and German visual studio Urban Screen

All these digital projection mapping artists produce works that Kang considers art and not mere decorative colour displays. "My standard is that the piece should not be surface decoration. There are several really strong artists who are conceptually, visually and aesthetically good." 

On the flipside, there are numerous projection mapping practitioners out there who "make moving images with colours that have no connection to the space." These are mere decorations and not an artistic practice. From Kang's observation, the number of people executing such decorative installations easily outnumbers the crop of digital projection mapping artists. And this is a major concern. The relatively niche digital projection mapping art community now sits on a crucial, pivotal point. 

Will it find its way into the pages of art history books, or will it be lost to commercial exploits and dilution?

Yiyun Kang

"To avoid that situation we really have to think about it. More writing, more essays, more literature, more references so to make this medium a good one... Otherwise, it will just be gone. It will just be a surface decoration. " 

And Kang welcomes art critics, curators, and artists themselves to examine digital projection mapping. "People have to bridge that gap and try to make it smaller." Perhaps, there is only one way to help this artistic medium stay with us — criticise it.